Monday, September 05, 2011

art, work

Happy Labor Day, y’all. I’ve had a four-day weekend, thanks to a wonderful East Coast invention called “summer Fridays,” and while it’s been refreshingly slow-paced, it has not been without labor. That’s the world we live in—there’s the job you do (if you’re lucky) for cash and benefits, and the various jobs you do for fun and Facebook “likes.” Or Wuffie, the currency of the reputation economy in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. (For more on that and other August reads, see below.)

AK has two papers due next week, so I popped open my laptop and worked next to her at my various pseudo jobs and personal projects. I felt a little bit like Maggie Simpson steering her toy wheel next to Marge in the opening credits of The Simpsons.

How I labored:

  • Finished a revision of Chapter 14 of the circus novel. The next one is mostly new material, so it should be more fun and a lot harder.
  • Tinkered with the website I designed to convince birthmothers that AK and I are responsible yet fun-loving, on top of things yet relaxed, financially stable yet down to earth, busy with work and fabulous hobbies yet able to make lots of time for a kid, and dying to be parents yet totally not impatient. Hopefully the font upgrade I shelled out $30 for communicates all of those things.
  • Posted my first guest-blog for my favorite fashion blog, Ironing Board Collective (which I have been calling the Ironing Board Collective up until now, like your grandma talking about “the Facebook”). If you love fashion and are often as baffled by it as I am, head on over and read about my outlet-shopping adventure in Palm Springs. And leave a comment, because it’s my secret hope that they’ll ask me back for occasional guest-blogging stints even after my two allotted months (every Monday!) are up. I want my editors to think of me as “that girl people read and love” as opposed to “that girl who’s a little unclear about what constitutes and A-line skirt.”
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And now, in a relative non-sequitur, here’s my monthly reading recap:

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant: I'm already getting this book mixed up with the last historical fiction novel I read (Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright, which took place forty-ish years earlier and in London), which doesn't bode well. I love the idea of this book: A hardscrabble township that's mostly home to widows, whores and the occasional runaway slave becomes a ghost town before our eyes. But Diamant doesn’t seem to have much to say about that concept. Characters just go about their daily lives, working, moving, falling in love, dying. I liked the book more once I began reading it as a series of connected short stories, but it's still hard to rally a lot of enthusiasm.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow: It's hard to believe that when Doctorow wrote this novel way back in 2003, the iPhone didn't even exist. Yet he envisioned a future in which there's an app for everything. The internet is so small and user-friendly that it actually lives inside people, and if you inconveniently die, your backup will just be inserted into a clone. This raises some interesting questions about self-hood, but it's a good thing, mostly. I'm not a big sci fi reader, but it seems like many contemporary futuristic novels are dystopian. It was incredibly refreshing to read one that was optimistic (though still far from utopian and more believable for it), not to mention clever, funny and sprinkled with lingo and syntax that sound like English 3.0. Down and Out suffers from many first-novel flaws, such as a lack of character development, needlessly confusing plot points and bits of repetition that an editor should have caught. But I'll always take interesting-and-flawed over predictable-and-perfect. (Which is more or less what the protagonist concludes when he claims a technological middle ground at the end.)

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: This is a quieter book than Specimen Days or The Hours, but no less deep. It's about a middle-aged art dealer who's strangely drawn to his young, beautiful, drug-addict brother-in-law, territory that could annoying in the hands of a less skillful writer. But leave it to Cunningham to turn an idea--in this case, the relationship between beauty and destruction--over and over to reveal each glimmering facet, each worn curve, in new light.

At first it appears that Peter Harris will meet his downfall in his noble pursuit of great art and great human art. Everything and everyone else, including his angry, plain teenage daughter and his aging wife, who has her own career struggles, is just a sad imitation or a commercial gimmick. Pity the little people, and if Peter is one of them for not being an artist himself, at least he's smart enough to position himself adjacent to greatness.

But ultimately By Nightfall is a quiet celebration of the greatness of little people and the littleness of great people. Cunningham's eye is on every cab driver (and he dedicated the book to his agent and editor, those unsung cogs that make art happen). I've heard Cunningham speak about how every piece of art is an imperfect act of translation from the ball of passion and fire in the artist's mind into mere words, and also how everyone is the main character in his or her own novel. This novel honors both those statements by revealing both Peter's aesthetic/spiritual hunger and the fact that this hunger is neither unique nor entirely necessary--there is greatness in the mundane, which is never as mundane as it seems.

By Nightfall is written in what I'd call the Very Very Close Third, sometimes tumbling into second or first person as we fall deeper into Peter's thoughts. This reflects his tragic self-absorption (though he's always nice, always reasonable, always self-aware, making his tragic flaws even more cathartic). It also reflects the evolution of Cunningham's prose style. He's always had X-ray vision into the layers of human consciousness, but now that clairvoyance feels more intimate and clipped--not quite spare (I love him for what I consider his maximalism), but definitely without frills. The result is critical essay that reads like a galloping, page-turning ride through one man's mind.

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